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Francophone coups: Is France losing interest or losing out to Russia, China?

BY: Alhaji Irbard Ibrahim

Ghana’s President and Chair of ECOWAS, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, expressed concerns at the extraordinary session of the regional bloc in Accra about the spate of coups in the West African sub-region recently.

The fear is that as more and more governments fall, a parallel and rival group may emerge from the ashes of these coup d’etats posing security challenges for the region for decades to come.

One cannot help but wonder whether this latter-day coup culture is West Africa’s own version of the Arab Spring.

Concerns are being raised about why a chunk of these coups have taken place in Francophone West Africa.

In Togo, father and son, Iyadema and Faure Gnassingbe, have ruled for more than half a century (50 years) and counting.

In Cote d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, who was a beneficiary of ending Laurent Gbagbo’s long term in office, is himself enjoying a third term after amending the country’s Constitution, widening the spectre of a potential coup in the coming months and years.

Political bourgeoisie

Francophone countries make up a simple majority of ECOWAS.

The political elite seem to be tied to the apron’s strings of France, creating widespread French influence on educational and cultural exchange, including the diffusion of French popular culture, particularly in urban areas; trade and investment; technical and financial assistance; French financial arrangements; periodic “Francophone” leaders’ conferences chaired by an incumbent French President; membership in the international francophone cultural organisation, La Francophonie; and the presence of multiple thousands of Frenchmen living or doing business in these states while maintaining multiple links to France.

Occasionally, these Francophone states call for French military intervention in a local conflict, and units of the French Force d’Action Rapide (FAR) have been stationed in some of these countries, ready to strike to safeguard French interests or prop up a local presidential favourite of France.

These past and present ties to France have tended to perpetuate a sense of connection among a variety of politically and economically active populations in the Francophone states, extending into their political systems and taste of governance structure and form.

Is France Uncle Sam?

Indeed, France no longer wields the big stick it once did, and Francophone West African leaders periodically pick fights with their French friends or ‘masters’.

Furthermore, the old institutional and economic links have declined as France itself, beginning with the tenure of President François Mitterand and continuing during that of President Jacques Chirac, has been pulling back from its African commitments, and these states have been cultivating new connections with other members of the European Community, other African states and a growing number of recently acquired non-African trading partners such as China and Russia.

Yet, a loose and surprisingly durable base of political commonality persists and, thus, provides the principal reason for what can be termed French neo-colonial tendencies in these Francophone countries.

Coup trigger

Anger at weak, self-serving leaders has been a common pattern in Francophone coups.

Each of the coups has been about particular local circumstances.

In Mali, it stemmed from frustration at former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s weak leadership in a security crisis, and resentment over his government’s perceived or real corruption and manipulation of parliamentary election results, while the coup in Guinea was a reaction to Alpha Conde’s attempt to change the Constitution for a third term.

Impact, insurgencies

The recent coup in Burkina Faso was different from previous ones because it happened “at a very serious time of increased terrorist attacks”, said Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, the Director of the Africa Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

One attack sometime ago killed 53 people, including 49 military police officers.

One can trace the increase in terrorism in West Africa to the aftermath of Muammar Gaddafi’s fatal removal in Libya in 2011.

That and what is now regarded as a curtailed Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East led to a migration of terror-affiliated groups towards Niger, Chad and Mali, spreading frequent attacks and strengthening militant insurgencies across the sub-region.

Beginning sometime in 2016, a rivalry between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State helped worsen the turbulence.

And as ECOWAS governments struggle to contain the wave of terror, ungoverned spaces proliferate cutting millions of citizens off from any semblance of governance, leading to local versions of terror and armed banditry like in northern Nigeria, where over 1,000 villagers were killed in the first six months of 2020, according to Amnesty International.

Russian presence

It is crystal clear Moscow sees its presence in Africa in very broad terms, building on ties from Soviet times.

President Vladimir Putin has said Africa is one of Russia's foreign policy priorities and has spoken about offering a wide range of support, including educational, defence and security and economic.

Russia’s ambitions have prompted some concerns in other countries with close ties to the continent, including France, that they are being outplayed by Moscow.

China’s involvement

Since the early 1960s when West African countries gained independence from their former European colonial rulers, many of them have engaged in political, economic and geo-strategic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In many cases, these relations intensified in the recent period, with China playing a major role in extensively investing in, providing loans and engaging in large-scale trade relations with the West African countries.

China’s objectives in West Africa (and the rest of the sub-continent) are political, economic and geostrategic in nature.

Ending coups

The principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states should be reviewed.

ECOWAS cannot continue to play a fire-fighting role when the damage has already been done.

Through peer-to-peer review, ECOWAS should be able to raise red flags when Presidents make an attempt to amend their countries’ Constitutions to continue to stay in power.

Longevity in power has proven to be a function of recent coups, therefore ECOWAS should be able to speak truth to power before soldiers in affected countries’ strike.

Time

It is time to do an introspection and a deliberate stocktaking on the future of ECOWAS in light of the youth awakening in both the military and civilian populations to make amendments and reviews in the ECOWAS Charter that will keep up with the security situation of our time.

The writer is International Relations/Security Analyst.